Earlier today, the Pew Research Center released polling results showing that few Republicans perceive the Supreme Court as conservative, even though a majority of the justices are Republican-appointed and, according to a leading estimation method (Martin-Quinn scores), the Court is more conservative than it has been at any point since the early New Deal. More specifically, 45 percent of conservative Republicans and 29 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans considered the Court to be liberal, while 39 percent of conservatives and 45 percent of non-conservatives labeled the Court “middle-of-the-road.” For comparison purposes, liberal Democrats viewed the Court as either conservative (48 percent) or middle-of-the-road (31 percent); for moderate or conservative Democrats, the respective percentages were 26 and 45.
It is tempting to attribute these findings to increasing radicalization within the Republican Party. How else might we explain how conservatives can get a steady stream of victories from the current Supreme Court yet fail to recognize the body delivering these victories as conservative? There is an alternative explanation, though. The Martin-Quinn scores provide aggregate data on the Court’s decision making, but when ordinary people (who are not as inclined as political elites to think ideologically about politics, and thus might not fully understand the content of ideological labels) are asked about the Court’s outlook, they are likely to base their assessment on whichever cases spring to mind. Those cases are likely to be the ones receiving substantial attention from political activists and/or trusted media outlets. If conservatives are primed to assess the Court not in terms of its behavior across a wide range of cases, or its ideological trend across time, but in response to highly publicized socially liberal rulings, then they will be more prone to labeling the Court liberal or moderate.
Liberals, in contrast, would not treat these rulings as evidence of a moderate or liberal Court because they have not been primed to treat these victories as typical, as conservative activists have done when attacking the Court. Rather, liberal commentators and activists more commonly stress either the Court’s conservative direction or high-profile rulings favoring conservative interests. So liberals receive cues from trusted liberal sources that are consistent with the pattern supported by the Martin-Quinn estimates, while conservatives receive cues from trusted conservative sources that overestimate the frequency of anomalous liberal rulings. Note that this account is not at odds with a narrative that stresses the national Republican Party’s rightward movement; indeed, the two accounts can be reconciled by noting the link between growing conservatism within the party, the cues sent by activists and sympathetic media outlets, and the receptiveness of rank-and-file conservatives to such cues. Given the issues facing the Court for the rest of this term, it will be interesting to see whether perceptions of the Court shift appreciably in response to its rulings on matters like same-sex marriage, voting rights, and affirmative action.